'This debate is not simply about an epidemic' - Macleans.ca

‘This debate is not simply about an epidemic’

Aaron Wherry on the late-night H1N1 debate on the Hill


If nothing else, evening debates do provide an excuse to walk up Parliament Hill with the Peace Tower all lit up and looking particularly magisterial. The impact of the Centennial Flame at the bottom of the hill is also tenfold when everything else is dark.

Anyway. I watched the first half hour and a half of debate and did not once hear an unrelated human tragedy invoked for the sake of easy comparison. That too was redeeming. I return home several hours later to see the discussion is still going, a Conservative backbencher still dutifully raising the same tangential point he was pursuing four hours ago, Niki Ashton still carrying the NDP cause with youthful idealism and Liberal Larry Bagnell looking suitably dishevelled.

A link to the full debate in the morning once Hansard is up (Note: that link is now here). For now, below are the remarks of Michael Ignatieff, who spoke second for the Liberals. An overview of the early remarks from the CBC is here.

M. Michael Ignatieff (chef de l’opposition, Lib.): Madame la Présidente, je veux remercier le Président d’avoir permis ce débat car cela reflète l’urgence nationale de la question et je veux remercier ma collègue, la députée de St. Paul’s, pour son travail remarquable sur ces questions.

This debate is not simply about an epidemic, it is a debate about the proper role and function of government. The role of government is to prepare citizens, to lead citizens and to inform them. In all three dimensions, the government has failed in its duties.

If I begin just with the failure to prepare. La grippe H1N1 est apparue pour la première fois le 23 avril au Mexique. Le 27 avril, dans cette Chambre, j’ai posé la première question, à savoir où était le plan du gouvernement pour faire face à ce défi. Aucun plan depuis.

Les conservateurs ont attendu avant de commander les vaccins. Les États-Unis ont commandé les vaccins le 25 mai. La France les commandé le 16 juillet. Les conservateurs, le gouvernement, a attendu jusqu’au 6 août pour commander le vaccin. Ce retard est crucial. C’est un manque de leadership. C’est un manque de préparation flagrant. Trente-cinq pays ont commandé leurs vaccins avant le Canada.

Conservatives began and vaccination later than other countries. China, Australia, the United States, Sweden, Japan, the United Kingdom, all began vaccinations before our country. Canada did not begin vaccinations until October 26. The U.S. began administering the vaccine on October 5, before Canadian trials had even begun.

Two weeks ago, the Minister of Health said the vaccine would be available to all Canadians in early November, and now she says it will not be available until Christmas. We have discovered that there is not an adequate supply for next week.

The Conservatives did not order non-adjuvanted vaccine for pregnant women until it was too late, and they provided extremely confusing advice at all times.

This failure to properly inform the public has become a source of enormous anxiety to Canadian families. They do not know what public information to believe. This is producing anguish in families that is the direct responsibility of the government.

J’ai déjà parlé d’un manque de préparation, mais il y avait aussi un manque de leadership. Les provinces et les territoires ont demandé des ressources additionnelles au gouvernement fédéral; 400 millions de dollars étaient alloués dans le budget de 2006, cela veut dire 80 millions de dollars par année pour aider les provinces et les municipalités à affronter ce défi. Jusqu’à ce moment, pas de réponse du gouvernement, pas de concertation.

Je veux donner enfin un simple principe: les épidémies s’en fichent des juridictions. Elles s’en fichent des territoires. Municipales, provinciales, fédérale, les juridictions doivent travailler en consultation, en concertation et c’est le rôle du fédéral d’élaborer un plan national afin que toutes les autorités soient mises en relation entre elles. C’est cela qui manque dans la démarche du gouvernement.

Instead of taking responsibility, the government blames everybody else. It blames the drug company because there is not enough supply for next week. It blames the provinces and territories. “We do not deliver health care”, it says.

We understand that, but the role of a national government is to provide the planning framework in which everybody does their job, because as I said in another language epidemics do not care about jurisdictions. What the national government is there to do is bring people together. The government has failed to do that consistently since the beginning of the crisis.

The question now is when will the government own up and take responsibility? When will the Prime Minister begin to exercise the leadership that is his responsibility here? Why does he refuse to lead? Why does the entire government shift responsibility to the drug companies, to the provinces, to the municipalities, anybody it can instead of standing up and doing what the Government of Canada ought to be doing?

Finally, the failure to inform, the failure to prepare, the failure to lead, the failure to inform. This is a government that has spent something like 10 times more on its own publicity, publicizing its own highly-partisan infrastructure program than it spent on public health information.

This is the most astonishing failure of all of the government’s failures. Clean, clear public information that everybody can understand is the right of every Canadian citizen. We could have avoided the anguish in all the Canadian households had the government done its job. It failed to do so.

Ultimately this is not just about an epidemic, this is about the proper role of government in our society, the proper role of a federal government. The government has failed to its job, and that is why we are having this debate tonight.